In response to the NSA scandal, the government has argued that surveillance is necessary for our safety, and we just need to trust that they’re violating Americans’ privacy as little as possible. It’s a lot harder to make that leap of faith following the revelation that those handling sensitive data might not be checked all that thoroughly. Federal investigators claim they have evidence that USIS, the largest private provider of government background checks, frequently failed to properly complete its investigations of those seeking security clearance, then lied to government to cover their tracks. After all, it’s not like one of their subjects was likely to steal a trove of classified information, post it online, and spark an international manhunt, right?
USIS performed Edward Snowden’s security background check, and officials say that while there were unspecified problems during the process he was eventually cleared to work as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor at the NSA’s Hawaii office. While recent developments shed more light on the issue, the concerns aren’t new. The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees most of the government’s security background checks, launched a contracting-fraud investigation of USIS in 2011 (just a few months after Snowden was given security clearance). Though the OPM inspector general’s office won’t comment on the case, last week Sen. Claire McCaskill said USIS is the subject of a criminal probe due to a “systematic failure” to conduct background checks.
The company was required to conduct reviews of all of the background checks it performed to make sure nothing had been overlooked. However, from 2008 to 2011 USIS allegedly skipped the second review in as many as half of its cases, then told the government it had performed both checks. Now a federal watchdog tells the Washington Post that he plans to recommend that the government stop using USIS, unless the company can prove that it’s changed its ways.
Making good on that threat would be difficult, as USIS handles about 45 percent of all background checks for OPM, and the system is already plagued by huge backlogs. So even if the allegations are true, the task of determining who should be handling our most sensitive data might remain with a company that lied about cutting corners, but promises not to do it again.